Officials for the 911 emergency services in both Norfolk and Virginia Beach are telling residents if they make a call for service and the line continues to ring, they’re placed on hold or are greeted by an answering machine, don’t hang up.
Not only will the caller lose their place in the queue, but the already short-staffed dispatchers are required to spend valuable time calling back the missed caller, said Margie Hobbs, a recruiter at Virginia Beach’s Emergency Communications and Citizen Services divisions.
“If a caller dials 911, even if it’s by accident, it’s important to remain on the phone to let the call-taker know you’re okay,” she said. “If you hang up, it ties up the call-takers because they have to call back until they get an answer to advise the caller is okay.”
And, staffed at about 68 percent in Virginia Beach and 71 percent in Norfolk, having to wait on hold when seconds could determine the difference between life or death is an absolute possibility, said Jim Redick, director of Norfolk’s Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response.
“Calls are received by the next available call-taker. If there are multiple inbound calls, more than there are call-takers, residents will be on hold until the next available call-taker,” he said.
Hobbs noted residents can also text 911 to request assistance during emergencies in Virginia Beach.
According to National Emergency Number Association standards, 90 percent of 911 calls should be answered within 10 seconds during the busiest time of the day, or the hour when the center receives the most calls.
During that same hour, NENA standards show 95 percent of calls should be answered within 20 seconds.
A call-to-answer time report from Norfolk shows the call center answered 61.44 percent of calls within 10 seconds and 73.55 percent within 20 seconds during the 5 p.m. hour when 7,710 calls have come in since the beginning of the year.
Call-to-answer times for Virginia Beach were not immediately available.
April Heinze is the 911 and public safety answer point operations director at NENA. She said dispatcher shortages isn’t an isolated issue — many centers across the nation are facing the same challenges.
“There are many factors that play into this including low pay, burnout rates, a lengthy hiring process, and the need for specific skillsets like intuition and multitasking,” she said. “Often pay is comparable to job fields with less stress and more family-friendly hours.”
Both Norfolk and Virginia Beach are making strides to improve the number of 911 dispatchers — Norfolk and Chesapeake have opened a ‘request for information’ to explore the idea of combining their call centers.
With an improved turnover rate at 25 percent last year — it was 36 percent in 2017 — Hobbs said 11 new dispatchers have been hired in Virginia Beach and are set to start training this month.
Redick also said there are new dispatchers training in Norfolk but “unfortunately, many new hires also reach a point when they realize the hectic and high-stress 911 environment may not be for them.”
“The folks in the radio room are heroes,” he said. “While they don’t dodge bullets or run into building fires, they are the first of the first responders who ‘answer the call’ – literally – every day.”